We are fascinated with the people who take on tough, dirty, harrowing jobs: the miners, the oil riggers, the ice road truckers. Who are the men (and some women) who think they have what it takes, and why (and how) do they keep at it?
Bill Carter wondered the same when he accepted an offer from a stranger to hire on during the summer salmon fishing season in the Alaskan bush country. His account of the experience, "Red Summer" (Scribner, 256 pages, $25), is actually the story of four summers, and although his descriptions of the brutality of the work and life are unflinching, he deftly illuminates their perverse appeal.
And make no mistake, this is back-breaking, soul-crushing work that, with the near-constant daylight of the far north, never really ends. After first setting the nets (no small trick), thousands of pounds of salmon must be hoisted into the boat and plucked free, fish by flailing fish. There's not a fisherman who doesn't suffer from carpal tunnel or ripped tendons or cracks in the hands so deep and hard they're best treated with super glue. Sleep comes in four-hour bursts, helped along by codeine and booze.
Ah, the booze. Another constant. There are many dangers in this part of the world -- bear attacks, drowning, freezing to death -- but alcohol poses perhaps the biggest threat. Carter comes to see that it might be a necessity while navigating this life in which a "vicious survivalist attitude" is required, but he sadly acknowledges the grave toll it has taken on Natives and passers-through alike.
Of course, Carter couldn't fill a whole book with fish tales. "Red Summer" is peppered with sketches of the characters of the population-80 town of Egegik: his boss, Sharon Hart, a tough, fair business- and fisherwoman; the old mayor, Dick Deigh, who owns the only liquor store in town and spends his days talking back to "The Price Is Right"; Scott Olsen, a prematurely aged Native man of 36 who dreams of owning his own boat but hasn't even the money to feed his family.
And Carter finds time for remarkable introspection, wondering about the fate of the people who spend their whole lives in a place where the winters are unimaginably harsh, milk is $10 a gallon and the nearest medical care is three hours away. "What genetic tools are required, what mental stamina has to be sharpened?" he muses. "This thought makes me curious about the locals and at the same time makes it impossible to judge them."
He even begins to question the nature of the work to the point where he can't look a fish in the eye as it fights for its life. But he also is forthright about why he spent four summers in this unforgiving place: "I am often asked why I keep returning to Egegik. The money is not great. The weather is brutal and the work is both difficult and dangerous. And at the end of the season I promise myself I will never do it again.
"I return to Egegik because I need a place where nature still has the upper hand, reminding me that my existence is fragile and fleeting." Carter is such an engaging writer that we can grasp his sentiment without ever boarding a boat.
Cynthia Dickison is a features designer at the Star Tribune.